The Power of Psychic Pain -The 1st in a Series of 3 Articles – Starting with Freud’s Pleasure Principle

Freud’s writings addressed pleasure and identified it as the absence of pain, and described man’s (person’s) search for pleasure and avoidance of pain. He called this the  “Pleasure Principle”. 

I consider his approach to be a partial description of the human condition and helpful in understanding the nature of addiction. Anything can be the drug, which can create a distraction from psychic pain, a distraction from intense emotional experience, a distraction from the anxiety that often foreshadows the emergence of unwanted sensations. Drug addictions come in all forms, shapes and sizes. The substance doesn’t have to be cocaine, alcohol or any of the well-known tangibles so prevalent in our society.

Very often the drug can be food, work, or any behavior that removes us temporarily from the natural flow of the emotional experience of everyday life, from the interaction in relationships, or from the moment to moment emotional reactions within us. These reactions might be triggered by a present day experiences, or by lingering unresolved memories.

In addictive dependency we can be seduced to believe that the substance will never abandon us; the substance will always be on call; available to us at any given moment. I recall someone once saying, “Smoking is my ‘best friend’.” The truth is, not only can some substances like cigarettes, kill us, but they can reliably prevent us from revealing and healing the primitive experiences we are afraid to experience.

Even sexuality can be devoid of intimacy and used as an escape from one’s own relationship with one’s self and/or one’s significant other. In fact, it appears that in some instances, a relationship itself can serve to distract us from the essence of who we are, and remove us from relating to our inner world.

The Power of Psychic Pain – 2nd in a Series of 3 Articles “You Can Never Get Enough of the Wrong Thing”

The Power of Psychic Pain – 2nd in a Series of 3 Articles – “You Can Never Get Enough of the Wrong Thing”

Many years ago in the mid 1970’s, when I was a fledgling psychotherapist, I attended a weekend workshop at deBenneville Pines, a lovely retreat center in the San Bernardino mountains. In the workshop the leader mentioned a phrase that I have never forgotten. It so impacted me that now, more than 35 years later, I am writing an article about it on my website. It is a profoundly important phrase, one which I have carried in my heart since long before the word “cyber-space”.

One might wonder why the phrase “You Can Never Get Enough of the Wrong Thing”  struck me so deeply. Even back then I was an over-eater, trying to get a handle on my compulsion to eat when I wasn’t hungry. Food was my substance and still is. It will always be so, for, as most of us are aware, addiction can be managed, but never cured. Anyone familiar with the 12 Step Program knows that we are always in recovery; we are never recovered.

In my life-long endeavor to manage my healthy(?) appetite for food, to understand the triggers behind compulsive eating, and to integrate the relationship between early developmental needs and longings and compulsive eating which distracts me from those needs, the phrase makes perfect sense to me. Whatever we are longing for in the moment may very well be connected to something that can not be satisfied by the substance or by food or by other people.

In the many years of practicing my profession it has become increasingly clear to me that the words in the 12-Step “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous are true. The ‘disease of addiction’ (alcohol, food, drugs) is “cunning and baffling”. It plays with our minds. Whether or not we subscribe to the term ‘disease’ to explain the condition that we grapple with on a regular basis, the fact remains that it is insidious, and for many people it is the center of their lives.

So, it doesn’t seem to matter how much one gets of the substance. It is a distraction from whatever lurks underneath, whatever is too painful to embrace, to explore, or to surrender to. Many times in working with couples I have heard each wanting something from the other that the other is unable to provide. Even if the significant other could understand his or her partner’s need and was willing to gratify that need, whatever is delivered is probably the wrong thing.

For instance, even an abundance of affection from the partner, every time it is demanded or needed can not address with exquisite attunement that which was missing and ‘hungered for’ in his/her early life, so long ago. Like the fruitless endeavors continuously pursued from substances, the early deficits can only be healed by one’s own willingness to look inside and accept was or is still missing, and grieve that loss

The Power Of Psychic Pain – The 3rd in a Series of 3 Articles – “The Irony is This – If You Don’t Go in, You Can’t Find Out”

The Power of Psychic Pain – 3rd in a Series of 3 Articles – “The Irony is This – If You Don’t Go In, You Can’t Find Out”

 

Some time ago I was struck by a piece of artwork hanging in the bathroom of a friend. The piece is by Richard Stine, and it says: “The irony is this – If You Don’t Go In, You Can’t Find Out…”

I was moved by the phrase. Instead of it saying, “…you can’t ‘get out’, as I expected, it says, …you can’t ‘find out’. How clever I thought! To me this sounded like being “just” out of reach of the essence of who we are, never wishing to find out what the origin of our psychic pain is. Staying just out of reach of that pain guarantees protection from the pain, while at the same time assures that if we never get to it, we never get through it.

This idea brings to mind my own perception of the depressive syndrome. We’ve often heard that depression is “anger turned inward”; that is, we get angry at ourselves instead of at the true object of our annoyance, irritation, anger, or rage. Perhaps it’s easier to turn it inward, fearing that we might lose the object of our affection if we express that rage toward him/her. And so, the anger gets turned inward, on the object of ourselves, whom we may view as more easily dispensable.

But I think it’s deeper than that. I think depression starts much earlier in life. It sometimes can start with a loss; a loss of a tiny green turtle who disappears into the green grass, never to be seen again; or the loss of a canary, who is quickly replaced by another pet. Sometimes a well-intentioned parent replaces the lost pet to prevent the child from having to feel the loss as in “It’s ok, darling, we’ll get another turtle, puppy, goldfish”.

Sadly, the well-meaning parent does the child no favor. Instead, whatever sadness the child might have naturally felt from this first loss gets suppressed, pushed out of consciousness and forgotten (and repressed, which means that we forget that we forgot). But the unconscious does not forget. And so the sadness takes us to a deeper level of discomfort that sits there, only to be triggered during the next loss, which is inevitable. And the next loss compounds the first one, storing more uncomfortable feelings that are left ungrieved. Over time, what originally came from the outside, from the environment, namely loss, a natural phenomenon, becomes “stuck” on the inside, only to be aggravated time after time through life.

Had the child been encouraged to feel his/her sadness, mourn the loss of his/her beloved pet, then the grieving process could have/would have developed over time, allowing this young person to grow into adulthood with an open heart, more able to process and move through whatever came his/her way. If he/she had been allowed to “go in”,  she or he could have “found out” where the feelings came from and how to integrate these feelings into their internal process.

The Irony is This - If You Don't Go In, You Can't Find Out

The Irony Is This - If You Don't go in You Can't Find Out

I’m talking about The Power of Psychic Pain. Pain in the psyche (the heart, the emotions) is inevitable in life. It comes with disappointment, boundaries, disillusionment, rejection, and loss. The power of it is that if we go into it, allow it, embrace it, even in its profound discomfort, there is growth and the building of emotional skills to process the anxiety that accompanies each and every painful experience. Being in and with the pain is the vehicle that carries us to the other side of it.

I often think of the “Peanuts” cartoon by Charles Schultz. There is a loveable character named Pig Pen. What characterizes this fellow is that he is constantly followed around by a balloon of dirt. No matter where he goes, he can never get rid of that dirt bubble. I think that depression is like that. If we don’t go into it, allow it to be, and become it, we can’t find out what it means, where it came from, or how to let it go. It just follows us like the cloud of dirt following Pig Pen. I recall a profoundly effective psychotherapist/psychoanalyst named Fritz Perls, the founder of Esalen, a growth center in northern California in the 1960’s. He believed that if we embraced experience to the fullest, in fact, maximized the feelings, increasing them intensely until they collapsed around and inside of us, we could process them and move through them.

In these 3 articles, I am addressing some of the basic principles of the work I have loved doing since 1975. It is to accompany others to and through the psychic pain that is keeping them stuck so that they can come upon a new experience of life. The process can be powerful.

 

Weight Management & Me

A personal Note

Like so many others I have tried to cope with a lifetime of having my life run by the cookie, a brownie, or an ice cream cone, always hoping that this next Monday I’ll start the weight loss process again. What does it take to change that compulsion into the commitment that I can run my own life? What does it take to see the cookie as just another kind of food and one that is likely to trigger those old, dangerous urges?

It’s hard to know what it takes, what the proper words are, what the accurate concept is, what the confrontation is that turned my mind the other way, to allow me to get on the other side of the addiction and to be free of it. And how long will I stay there? The answer is an unknown. This weight management process is in some ways more difficult than “one day at a time”, which may be familiar to us through the 12 Step Program and its success stories. For the compulsive overeater, it is more like a “moment at a time” or “an urge at a time”, not “one day at a time.” And how does one come to terms with the overwhelming impulse to believe that “just one won’t hurt”?

Anyone reading the last 2 paragraphs recognizes what I’m talking about. The surgery doesn’t fix the compulsion or problems related to weight management. It’s a tool; and I do believe that we are doing surgery on the wrong organ. We’re changing the stomach, but not the mind. I’m not against the surgery; I’m all for it. It has saved peoples’ lives, restored their sanity, and given them another chance at life.

Getting a handle on this phenomenon before surgery can give one a better chance to make it emotionally to the other side and stay there and be forever grateful for whatever it took to make the leap.

The Last Word on the First Bite

image of an apple with heart

For the last few decades “eating disorder” treatment has been fashionable. This comment is not to minimize the severity or the danger which threatens those afflicted. Rather, it is to emphasize the fact that, like clothing styles, issues in mental health can become commodities for the marketplace, and are subject to the whims of the marketeers of western civilization.

For this reason alone, it is essential to keep in mind that even though the spotlight of the networking world has shone on the diseases of the 21st Century, codependency, short-term treatment and meeting the requirements of managed care companies, victims afflicted with compulsive overeating still suffer, weight loss recidivism is still 90%, and the complications of the disease can still be fatal.

As a compulsive overeater in recovery, as a psychotherapist treating the disease, and as a student of the disorder, I have watched weight loss programs come and go for many years. They don’t work; they don’t cure. We might wonder what’s missing; why haven’t we found the answer?

An eating disorder is a symptom; it is another form of addiction. It is a manifestation of, and an acting-out of many levels of pain, distrust and avoidance of issues far more threatening than being overweight. In 1978 Susie Orbach made a significant contribution with her book Fat is a Feminist Issue.  She pointed out that overeating and being fat are two separate issues. This distinction was a starting place for developing a comprehensive view of the issues that must be addressed in working with compulsive overeaters. This view must include at least five major concepts:

  1. Overeating as a form of substance abuse,
  2. Being overweight as a means of survival in the family system,
  3. The dangers (real or imagined) of being thin,
  4. An understanding of the differences among natural, emotional and addictive hunger,
  5. The addictive nature of overeating, the understanding of “binge” behavior and what is meant by “The First Bite.”

Most compulsive overeaters do not recognize natural hunger and at times it is difficult to differentiate it from anxiety. Anxiety often foreshadows other feelings that have been repressed because these feelings were too painful to be tolerated. When these feelings begin to emerge they are squelched with food and described as hunger.

Rarely, if ever, is the stomach empty long enough to transmit the message to the brain. When “real hunger” occurs, it takes amazingly little food to satisfy it, which can be deeply disappointing for the person who seeks more from food than it can provide. Disturbing feelings are often mistaken for hunger, food is used to camouflage a feeling, which in turn, produces guilt, then depression and the binge cycle begins once more.

The binge, once started often touches off addictive eating. Each attempt to stop the binge threatens to overwhelm the person with the intolerable feeling (s) that started the binge. Addiction has many definitions. Some say it is knowing that the behavior is destructive but engaging in it, nonetheless. Others say it is behavior that is out of control. I observe that addiction has a personality all its own.

To contain the impulse to binge means not to take “The First Bite”. The first bite to a compulsive overeater is similar to the “first drink” to an alcoholic. “One drink is too many; a million is not enough”. Distinguishing the “first bite” means becoming attuned to natural hunger, eating until naturally satisfied, which is not easy to determine and to not take the “first bite” beyond natural satisfaction.

Being overweight must be understood by the function it serves. It says something to the outside world that the overweight person may not have been able to transmit directly, such as “Stay away; I am afraid to have you come any closer to me”, or “I don’t know how to declare my boundaries”

Each of these issues is just a piece of the complexity of overeating. It must be viewed from all of these angles and more. We all know diets don’t work. What is so much more difficult to know is what the behavior covers, how to reach the underlying issues and how these issues can be effectively addressed.

By

Mim Collins, Psy.D., M.F.T.

 Copyright 2006 SFVCC.ORG. All rights reserved

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Mim Collins Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy serves the San Fernando Valley Communities of Valley Village, Studio City, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Burbank, Pasadena, Encino, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Sun Valley, Panorama City, Tarzana, and Lake Balboa.

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Mim Collins, Psy.D., M.F.T.
Office in Valley Village
Phone: (818) 763-8222
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